WHY DO WE CARE what other people read? Reading is, after all, a solitary enterprise, done privately in a favourite armchair, in bed, in a quiet corner in a coffeeshop. But to read is also to have a conversation, with the author, with other readers, other books, across centuries. We scour one another’s bookshelves in search of like minds and companionship. Our books, in a way, make us fully human to one another. We care what other people read because we want to know who they are. This social desire is what motivates a double issue devoted entirely to our political leaders and the books they love. It is an enterprise hinged on wanting to see these men and women — usually spotted prevaricating under the glare of TV lights or speaking in the stilted cadences of officialese — in an alternative space: relaxed, enthusiastic, nostalgic and introspective. The more pertinent point is that books impart information and ideas. Reading connects us to our history and context, enables us to take the long view and see ourselves as part of a continuum, not bereft as if stranded on an island. Perhaps if politicians read more they might not be so beholden to the expedient. This is not to say that reading makes us wise but it helps, and examining the reading choices of our politicians may reveal something of who they are, more than they might want us to know.
Of course, politicians, in the business of trying to win affection, trust and respect, have long used their idealised bookshelves to flatter our sense of ourselves. We are serious people who deserve to be led by the sort of serious person who reads the books we recognise as serious. In the United States, the presidential book list is a long-established tradition. A columnist in the conservative magazine, the National Review, suggested, maliciously perhaps, that Bill Clinton would leave the books of prominent public intellectuals on his desk when meeting journalists. The resulting publicity for the book would win Clinton powerful academic support. Karl Rove famously wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal describing his boss, a man who looks like he mouths the words as he reads, as a bibliophile: “In the 35 years I have known George W Bush, he’s always had a book nearby… Mr Bush loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them.” Valiant as Rove’s attempt is, I’m not sure he has succeeded in recasting Dubya as a scholar.
The British take a similar interest in their leaders’ reading lists. Roy Jenkins, William Gladstone’s biographer, described the four-time British prime minister’s library, containing some 20,000 volumes, and how he sought refuge in reading from the “daily hurly burly of politics”. Gladstone’s inveterate reading habit drew as much contempt as it did admiration, a rival, according to Jenkins, once remarking that “Gladstone would rather read a second-rate book than give himself the chance to think first-rate thoughts.”
Many of the politicians we approached for this issue thrashed like walruses trapped in fishbowls when asked to recall a book that might have shaped their political or personal weltanschauung. One of the charming discoveries of this experiment, for me at least, is that Indian politicians are unabashed about what they read or, indeed, about their lack of reading. Can you imagine one of their primped and practised counterparts in the West admitting to reading Robert Ludlum with relish or recalling with a nostalgic twinkle their years of perusing the extensive outpourings of the Mills & Boon factory?
Perhaps, in a country as poor and illiterate as ours, book learning is overrated, that experience with people is at least as important and that extensive reading is mostly redolent of privilege rather than any great love of books. But this is to do a disservice to the millions of poor people who do read avidly, under the light of flickering lampposts as the romantic cliché would have us believe. Rather, the politicians represented in this cross-section reflect our preposterously variegated nation, so you have the lofty reading list of a Mani Shankar Aiyar or Shashi Tharoor slyly undercut by the knowing philistinism of a Lalu Prasad Yadav. Many of the politicians we surveyed were eager to showcase canonical knowledge in their respective language but no one displayed multilingual facility: a Maharashtrian politician who reads Bengali for instance, or a Hindi-belt politician who reads Tamil.
One of the charming discoveries of this experiment is that Indian politicians are unabashed about what they read or, indeed, about their lack of reading. Can you imagine their western counterparts admitting to reading Robert Ludlum or of perusing the outpourings of the Mills & Boon factory?
There may be a temptation among some to despair at the books our politicians cite in this issue. Certainly, I winced at the number of times our leaders would bring up Atlas Shrugged or The Alchemist as an example of a book that was profoundly moving or influential. India, as historian Ananya Vajpeyi ably explains in these pages, is a country founded on books and ideas. It is, for a books editor, a little galling to see how incidental books and ideas are to contemporary politicians, despite all the cant about reading being essential, a mark of the intellectually curious.
Or maybe I’m entirely wrong and this issue is proof of bracingly unpretentious leaders eager not to present themselves as intellectuals but to relate with the people they serve; products of their society and education as leaders in a democracy ought to be. You decide.